I was in Tirana yesterday afternoon to shoot the ongoing demonstrations there, against the United States’ request to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile on Albanian soil. The issue has brought Albania into the international spotlight recently, and the outcry from the public here seems to have been a resounding “NO.” The issue is a tough one for the new prime minister, Edi Rama, who is torn between keeping placating the constituency who voted him in, and keeping good relations with the international community, who expect Albania to “pull it’s weight” as a member of NATO. Either way Albania currently lacks a proper facility to handle the over 1000 tons of chemical agents that need to be destroyed or neutralized. Albania was the first country to dismantle it’s chemical weapons stockpile in 2007, for which they built a facility capable of handling the 16 tons of weapons. Firms in the United States, France and Germany are already making bids to build a facility large enough to handle Syria’s considerable stockpile. The prime minister has promised transparency with the public about the government’s decision on the matter, but has yet to come to any arrangement with the international community about the issue.
The first few times I visited Tirana I wasn’t impressed with it. It’s not one of those cities you can point to as having some distinct landmark or experience to have as a visitor. Having spent a few more days here though, I realize that this is one of the reasons I enjoy it. It’s a lovely place to hang out and enjoy just being. There are endless cafes, bakeries, markets, and antique stores to discover. Walking around and trying new places is a great way to find things in the city that become important to you, rather than some landmark that you are supposed to visit because a guidebook tells you to. There’s no pressure to hurry and see everything, you just learn to sit back and take your time sipping coffee, chatting with locals or fellow travelers. One of my favorite places is a small restaurant down the street from Milingona hostel, where they serve excellent Tru, cow brains fried up with egg. It probably doesn’t sound like the most appetizing dish, but each bite has a wonderfully light and buttery crunch to it. For less than $2 US, it’s hard to go wrong. Time to jump on a furgon (local minibus) to head up north to Shkoder.
I arrived in Tirana late yesterday evening. I’m staying here at Milingona Hostel, where I had previously stayed during a visit last Spring. Juli, the owner of the hostel, is a welcoming, knowledgeable, and gracious host. It’s one of the cleanest hostels I’ve ever stayed at, and is well situated for exploring all of Tirana’s sights. I had planned to head up to Shkodra today, where I’ll be staying for the next month or so, but ended up staying an extra day in Tirana to see the Albania v. Switzerland football match. This afternoon I went out to the Pellumbas Cave near the village of Ibe, which proved to be more of a hike than I had planned for but was very much worth the trek. The countryside is beautiful here, and I walked along the trail gorging myself on perfectly ripe figs that were practically dropping off the trees. I almost forgot how friendly complete strangers are here, stopping to say hello, even while I had inadvertently wandered onto their property. I used to think that people were only friendly to me because, being an American, I’m a bit of a commodity here. However, in general it seems people are very friendly and open with each other, there’s much more of a sense of community and common identity than people have back in Southern California. That’s part of the reason I’m staying for the football match, you really can get a sense of the pride people have for their country and culture here. Hoping for a win for Albania!